Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Practical Progression - By John Szimanski, Jr.

Originally posted on NaturalStrength.com on June 1, 1999

Every good lifter knows of and accepts the idea that progression is the key to getting stronger. Progression can be in the form of more weight or more reps, or, both. While we all know that being able to do more reps means that we are stronger, it's the increase in weight that brings a smile. It's the increase in weight that demonstrates improved strength.

Typically, regardless of where we start out, we reach a point where it seems impossible to make that next 5 or 2½-pound jump. Sometimes we successfully work past it, by any of a number of strategies; only to re-encounter it a short way down the road. If you are at your maximum potential, you may not be worried about trying to add more weight. Chances are pretty good that you are not so close to your maximum potential that you are willing to stop trying to add weight. There may be a way you CAN continue to add weight.

Let's start by examining the fundamental principle of fractional loading. Stated as a concept rather than a law: the typical human body cannot discriminate, by feel, 1 pound increments with anything weighing over 100 pounds.

To illustrate, load a bar to 100 pounds and load another, identical bar to 101 pounds. Have a blindfolded lifter unrack one bar, then the other several times. Ask him which bar is heavier each time. Unless he is a genetic wonder, he cannot possibly discern a difference in the weights. He might guess correctly 50% of the time; those odds are built in. But, he cannot factually tell. The threshold of human tactile sensitivity cannot detect the difference between 100 pounds and 101 pounds, 200 pounds and 201 pounds, etc.

Here's another example many of you have experienced. Do your bench warm ups and work sets all the way to your final top set as you usually do. We assume your top set is intense, i.e., to failure. Add 5 pounds to the bar, unrack and proceed to lift. You can't make it. The additional 5 pounds feels like a ton. Now, strip the 5 pounds and replace it with 1 pound. Unrack and lift. Bet you made it.

The key is the difference of just a few pounds, two pounds too much might as well be 100 pounds. Regardless, you won't lift it. You see it at meets all the time. Lots of lifters practice 'peaking' and, it's an effective strategy most of the time. But, how many times have you seen a win turned into a loss by a few pounds? How many workouts of 'no progress' have left you dejected?

Let's start at the beginning of a cycle and look at how fractional progression is applied to the utmost advantage. Say your deadlift workout is three increasing worksets with the top set using your maximum weight for the workout. Your previous PR is 400 pounds and you are currently doing 200 pounds for 10 reps at the top. These are easy workouts for you. They get you warmed up and you feel great. You feel like you could add 400 pounds now. But use your head. Be patient. Keep your eye on the light at the end of the tunnel.

A few days later, after you rest and eat well, you're champing at the bit to HIT the iron. Add 15 pounds to your top set this workout. After several workouts using this procedure, you are using over 300 pounds. Still well within your capabilities, but it is becoming more like work. Slow the increments to 10 pounds for several workouts. As you get around 380 it starts to get tough. Slow down to 5-pound increments for a few weeks.

Now you're up to 395 and you're working your tail off. You have good control of the weight, great form, and you have a little oomph left at the end of each workout, but now you're undeniably working out. Enjoy the success. Take a few moments before the next workout to recall how good this workout was. Savor it. Mull over how great the next workout will be, because you know you will increase the weight and you cannot possibly fail. Now it's time to get fractional.

At the next workout add 1 pound. Just 1 pound! As you work your way to the top set recall that you are absolutely certain to make the weight. You know your body cannot possibly tell the difference between this load and the load at the last workout. You did it then and you absolutely will do it now. There are no other possibilities. It's easy to envision yourself doing it because you know you will do it. When you get there, the top set will seem to fly.

Continue adding just 1 pound, and following the same procedure, at each workout. The old 400 maximum will no longer be an issue. Just concentrate on that 1 pound more you know you will lift at the next workout. Ignore the actual total. Focus on that inevitably successful 1 pound increase.

You will sail right past that old theoretical PR. You will probably have to take a breather from the intensity before you actually fail at a lift. You used to get to 400 and stall for 3 months with no progress. This time around, at the end of the same 3 months, and before you know it, you are lifting 425. And, you are smiling. "Big time". The best part is, you're still moving up.

Now is a good time for a reality check. We know we can add 10 or 15 pounds at a time, make progress, then begin to stall. We know if we then slow to 5-pound increases we can keep going. And now we know, if we slow to 1 pound increases, we can go on lifting more, virtually forever. Baaaaahhhh. Wrong. Nobody but nobody goes on lifting ever-increasing weight forever. You could slow down to ½ or ¼-pound increments and go a bit further. But at some point, if you actually could continue on and on, you will reach your true PR range, your true potential, your 'best' condition. So there is a double-edged sword of truth here: you can't go on lifting more ad infinitum yet, how many people do you know, who are at or near their true potential? One, two, none?

The bottom line - there's another tool for your toolbox. You pull it out when it's time. You use it when it's appropriate. There is no magic to it. But, there is guaranteed progress.

Like any other nice piece of equipment, nicely finished, personalized, accurate fractional plates can offer a little extra kick in the motivation department. But there is no denying that hanging ½ pound of peanut butter on each side of the bar will do the same thing. It's your choice 'how'. Just do it.

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